Casting for Shallow Grouper

If you've never had a fish literally put you on your knees, you may want to try casting for the Gag Grouper that hang on the shallow rocks a few miles off the coast between the Gulf Coast Villages of Chassahowitzka and Crystal River this fall.

If you've never had a fish literally put you on your knees, you may want to try casting for the Gag Grouper that hang on the shallow rocks a few miles off the coast between the Gulf Coast Villages of Chassahowitzka and Crystal River this fall.

When we say shallow, we mean shallow in this case. Some of these couch-sized rocks come within a foot of the surface at the lowest tides, and they have brought many a lower unit to grief over the years, even though they're miles from the nearest shoreline.

Average depths where the Gags are found is eight to ten feet, and not only are there a lot of the above-mentioned giant boulders scattered here and there, the bottom itself is largely solid lime rock with spaces of white sand and patches of turtle grass here and there.

Some inshore rocks may be picked over of keepers, meaning you'll have to release quite a few shorts, but virtually all survive in water this shallow. (photo by Frank Sargeant)

Thanks to years of tight limits on the harvest of Gags, the populations on these rocks has steadily improved, and these days there are often fish of eight to ten pounds hanging on them in cooler weather.

Now, an eight to ten pound Grouper hooked straight down on cut bait in 100 feet of water on a boat rod and 80lb test mono is one thing; they're strong, but not super-strong, and the fight is over after you pry them up 30 feet or so. Hook that same fish on what is basically an extra heavy, two hand, Bass flippin' rod–a 6000-size baitcaster and 80lb test no-stretch braid in ten feet of water–and it's a whole different ballgame. Some anglers also use heavy spinning rods, also with the 80lb braid, which is equally challenging.

Add in the fact that the fish is chasing down a topwater plug or a jumbo wobbling plug and attempting to crush it, and you've got the makings of a strike that you will remember for a long time.

The strikes themselves have been known to tear the rods out of the hands of unwary anglers, and as soon as the fish feels the hooks, the real trouble begins. When a Grouper with shoulders turns the corner in shallow water and heads for his rocky lair, it's a real challenge to stop him on anything short of anchor chain. And, since getting the bends isn’t a problem for the fish in shallow water–they don't give up–it's a battle all the way to the boat.

Any stout plug six to eight inches long will do the job on these fish, but you’ll need large 3X strong treble hooks to have any chance of holding the power of these fish. In diving lures, the Sebile Magic Swimmer 190 is a good one, while on top something like the Offshore Angler Island Popper or the larger Yo-Zuri Surface Cruiser will do the job.

The tactic is basically to ease up within casting range on a trolling motor or via drifting, then make a long cast well past the rock. Get the lure up to speed and bring it past the obstruction, working it hard with the rod tip low so you can set the hook with a big sweep and hopefully get the fish started away from cover.

Once the hit comes, it's a matter of pumping and winding for all you're worth, with a locked down drag to prevent any runs. The first 20 feet is the toughest, but the fish don't give up until they're in the boat.

The fishery is basically the result of an extension of the shallow, rocky islands that make up the coast in this area; they fade gradually into the sea, and the outcrops that form the shallow reefs extend for miles to the west. The general rule of thumb here is that the water gets deeper about one foot per mile from the nearest land, which is to say some areas five miles out may have only five feet of water, and rocks that are even more shallow.

Needless to say, this is no place to go high-speed motoring as you search for a fishable rock or you may find one with your propeller. I must admit I have done this on more than one occasion.

It's best to put someone standing up on the bow–or ideally, to go after the fish in a bay boat with a half-tower–and ease along during the mid-day hours, particularly when the water is calm, while wearing polarized glasses and marking a series of rocks with GPS. A few hours spent this way gives you multiple fishing spots and a relatively safe path through the mine-field if you keep your tracking function turned on.

There are launching ramps at Chassahowitzka, Homosassa, Ozello, and Crystal River, as well as at Fort Island Beach, west of Crystal River. There are good markers coming out of these ramps, (except Ozello), but don't assume there's safe water once you get to the last marker. The rocks can pop up out of nowhere if you turn north or south. This is one place where study of the charts in advance is a must, or play it safe and hire a local guide who specializes in shallow water Grouper fishing, like Captain William Toney out of Homosassa or Captain Marrio Costello out of Crystal River.

The season on Gags in the gulf is open June 1 to Dec. 31. The bag limit is two per angler per day, minimum size 24 inches. The relatively large minimum size means there are a lot of 23-inch fish on many of the rocks ready to provide some great catch-and-release action, and in this shallow water, there's almost no release mortality.

In fact, finding a few keepers can be a challenge at times, but there are often other species, like Cobia, Mangrove Snapper, and Sea Trout hanging around the same areas, and these can give you some take-home fish if the Gags come up a bit short.

Keeper gags like this one are usually found well offshore, but in the cooler months, they also show up on inshore rocks where they can be caught on an assortment of lures, including occasionally even topwaters. (photo credit FFWCC)

Frank Sargent

The Online Fisherman

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